Review: ‘Driveways,’ starring Hong Chau, Brian Dennehy and Lucas Jaye

May 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Brian Dennehy, Lucas Jaye and Hong Chau in “Driveways” (Photo courtesy of FilmRise)

“Driveways”

Directed by Andrew Ahn

Culture Representation: Taking place in Evansdale, New York, the dramatic film “Driveways” is about a middle-class Asian single mother and her pre-teen son who have traveled from Michigan to look after her recently deceased sister’s house, and they encounter a racially diverse group of people (white, African American and Latino) during their stay in Evansdale.

Culture Clash: The mother and son find themselves being affected by the neighbors, some of whom are more annoying than others.

Culture Audience: “Driveways” will appeal mostly to people who like low-key, “slice of life” independent dramas that have relatable moments about family and friendships.

Hong Chau and Lucas Jaye in “Driveways” (Photo courtesy of FilmRise)

As a dramatic film, “Driveways” does not have a lot of sweeping emotional arcs or pulse-pounding action. Instead, this quietly moving drama is more of a character study/meditation about the effects of not spending enough time with family and whether or not it’s to late to do anything about it. “Driveways” is the second-feature length film directed Andrew Ahn, who shows a lot of talent in authentic portrayals of everyday people.

In the beginning of the film, single mother Kathy (played by Hong Chau) and her son Cody (played by Lucas Jaye), who turns 9 years old during the course of the movie, are seen taking a road trip to Evansdale, New York. The movie includes montages of mother and son doing regular road-trip things, such as going to a rest stop and eating at a diner. It’s clear from the motel that they’re staying at that these two are on a very tight budget.

The movie also shows that Kathy and Cody have a fairly easygoing mother-son dynamic. Cody, who is quiet and obedient, keeps himself amused by constantly using his computer tablet. Kathy is a somewhat strict and protective mother, who tells Cody not to talk to strangers. The only tension in their relationship seems to be about Kathy’s smoking habit. Cody somewhat chastises her for not quitting smoking. She impatiently tells him that she’ll quit smoking when she’s less stressed out over their financial situation.

Viewers soon learn that Kathy and Cody are on the road trip because Kathy’s sister April, who was 12 years older than Kathy, has recently died, and April’s house in Evansdale is going to be put up for sale. April lived alone, and Kathy (who is April’s is closest living relative) has the responsibility of packing up the house to make it ready to sell.

Kathy and Cody plan to temporarily stay at the house during this process, but when they arrive at house, there’s no electricity. The electric bill hasn’t been paid since April’s death, so the company has cut off the service. But what’s even more surprising to Kathy and Cody is that when they first arrive at the house, it’s the first time that they see how April was living. She was a serious hoarder. The messy house is filled to the brim with a lot of junk, and there’s barely enough room to move around the house.

Back at the motel the next day, Kathy is on the phone trying to literally keep the lights on at the house of her recently deceased sister. She explains the situation to the customer service agent to ask that the house’s electricity be turned back on, and the request is granted.

The movie never reveals the cause of April’s death, and she isn’t seen in any photos or flashbacks. It gives the April character an air of mystery that can open up a lot for interpretation by viewers. Snippets of information come out about April, based on what Kathy tells Cody.

Because of the sisters’ age difference, Kathy and April weren’t really very close, especially toward the end of April’s life. As children, April was smart and and quiet, while Kathy says, “I was the wild one.”

The two sisters had somewhat of a falling out of their aging mother (who’s also now deceased) because Kathy and Cody ended up having to live with Kathy’s mother in cramped living quarters after splitting up with Cody’s father. Kathy couldn’t understand why April, whose house is big enough for more than one person, didn’t invite their mother to live with April.

But looking at the shocking condition of the house’s interior, Kathy is now faced with the realization that April knew how bad her hoarding was and was ashamed of it, which is why April never wanted their mother to live with her.

Viewers also get a sense of what April was like, based on the things that she hoarded. She collected a lot of knick knacks that are sold at discount stores.) And they make a pretty gruesome discovery: a dead cat in the bathtub. It’s implied that the cat probably starved to death because its owner wasn’t around to feed it.

While they’ve temporarily moved into April’s house, Cody and Kathy notice their elderly next-door neighbor Del (played by Brian Dennehy) has been observing them by sitting on his porch. Del is a Korean War veteran (which he proudly displaces on a baseball cap that he often wears) and a widower who lives alone.

At first, Del comes across as a grumpy curmudgeon who wants to be left alone, so Cody and Kathy try to stay out of his way. But one day while waiting on his porch, he mentions to Kathy that the ride he’s been waiting for is late to pick him up for an appointment, so Kathy offers to drive Del to where he needs to go. It turns out that the place where Del need to go is the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Center, which is where most of his social activities and where all of his friends are.

Slowly but surely, Del and Cody develop a grandfather-grandson type of bond. Del tells Cody about his memories as a war veteran and about his late wife Vera. Cody opens up to Del about his anxieties and feelings of loneliness. Del even lets Cody come over sometimes so they can have snacks together.

Kathy and Cody also meet some other neighbors. Miguel (played by Jeter Rivera) and Anna ((played by Sofia DiStefano) are friendly siblings who are around Cody’s age, and they introduce him to their love of manga.

Then there’s nosy neighbor Linda (played by Christine Ebersole), who makes thinly veiled racist comments about Mexicans in the neighborhood who have loud parties and have a lot of children because they’re Latino. Linda (who’s the type of annoying person who smiles to your face and then gossips about you behind your back) also intrusively asks Kathy if she can look around April’s house because April was a recluse who never invited people into her home. Kathy politely declines and says, “Maybe some other time.”

In a minor subplot, Linda introduces Cody to her bratty grandsons 11year-old Brandon (played by Jack Caleb) and 12-year-old Reese (played by James DiGiacomo), who have a thing for wrestling. They wrestle each other in yards, and they love to watch wrestling matches on TV.

One day, Cody is hanging out with Jack and Caleb in their living room while the two brothers watch wrestling on TV and Cody is more absorbed in playing games on his tablet. Jack and Caleb aggressively challenge Cody to a wrestling match. He tries to ignore them, but the persist. And then Cody vomits.

The next scene is of Del calling Kathy to tell her that Cody is at his place because Jack and Caleb did something to upset him. Kathy then asks Del if Cody had vomited, and the answer is yes. Kathy then tells Del that Caleb vomits when he feels overwhelmed and anxious.

After that Del tells Cody in a private conversation that he used to get vomit from nerves before he went into combat. it’s a turning point in Del and Cody’s relationship, and they become more emotionally attached to each other. They spend time together at the library and at the VFW Center. Del also opens up to Cody about regretting not spending enough time with his daughter Lisa when she was growing up because he was too busy working. Lisa is now a judge in Seattle, and Del is very proud of her, because he shows Cody a newspaper clipping of her when they’re at the library.

“Driveways” screenplay by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen lets viewers know in subtle and quiet moments that Del and Kathy are on similar emotional journeys as they look back on relationships with family members and feel remorseful about how they could have done things differently. It’s through these emotional journeys that decisions will be made that impact the futures of these Kathy, Cody and Del.

Chau, Dennehy and Jaye demonstrate in beautifully understated ways in their facial expressions (without over-emoting) what regret of family relationships feels like and how letting go of pride and resentment can start the healing process. The movie wisely resisted gimmicks of creating a controversy in the story or putting in familiar tropes such as making the Del character an Ebenezer Scrooge type. Instead, because the characters in “Driveways” are ordinary people, viewers can see more of themselves and their family members in these character. “Driveways” doesn’t hit people over the head with any preachy messages but it definitely will remind people about how important it is to make the most out of the time spent with friends and loved ones.

FilmRise released “Driveways” in select U.S. virtual cinemas, on digital and on VOD on May 7, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘American Woman’

May 3, 2019

by Carla Hay

Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon in "American Woman"
Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon in “American Woman” (Photo by Ken Woroner)

“American Woman”

Directed by Semi Chellas

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The dramatic film “American Woman” (starring Hong Chau) has the unfortunate coincidence of having the same title as another dramatic film named “American Woman” (starring Sienna Miller), with both movies about females who’ve gone missing—although each movie has very different reasons for why these females have disappeared and why people are searching for them. The “American Woman” movie starring Hong Chau and directed by Semi Chellas is the one with the world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it will be released after the Miller-starring “American Woman” movie.

At the beginning of the “American Woman” movie starring Chau, Chau’s Jenny character is being interrogated by a law-enforcement officer for a serious crime. The rest of the movie is a flashback to what led to Jenny’s arrest. We find out that Jenny is a Japanese-American who has been living in 1970s upstate New York, doing renovation work for a racist retiree named Miss Dolly (played by Ellen Burstyn).

Jenny’s background is murky, but during the course of the movie, we find out that she’s no mild-mannered fixer-upper. She’s been heavily involved in radical, anti-government activities that include bombings and robberies in the name of protests against the Vietnam War and the establishment. And she’s an FBI outlaw. Miss Dolly suspects that Jenny is hiding from the law—but Miss Dolly isn’t quite sure what crime(s) Jenny has committed—and she uses that suspicion to take advantage of Jenny by making her work long hours for below the market wage.

We see that Jenny is writing to someone named Michael, who’s in prison. Michael is part of a mysterious underground network of radicals that has committed a series of bank robberies and bombings throughout the United States. Their crime spree includes kidnapping a newspaper heiress named Pauline (played by Sarah Gadon), who’s joined the group in their criminal activities and may or may not have been brainwashed. (The Pauline character is obviously inspired by the real-life Patty Hearst.)

In Jenny’s letter to Michael, she agrees to help hide and take care of three of the group’s fugitives while they write a book that explains their political beliefs and why they’ve committed extreme crimes. Jenny knows that the underground network is financed by criminal activities, so by taking care of these fugitives, she knows that she will have to commit other crimes too. We find out later that the mysterious “Michael” in the letter is Michael Fisher, one of the leaders of the underground network, and Jenny (who also uses the name Iris) is his girlfriend, and she has a history of making bombs.

Jenny quits her job, and buys an old car from Miss Dolly before she leaves. The fugitives are staying in Monticello, New York, at an isolated farmhouse that they’ve rented under aliases. The outlaws whom Jenny has been tasked with caring for are heiress Pauline, who’s been nicknamed “Princess”; bossy Juan (played by John Gallagher Jr.), a domineering jerk; and Juan’s romantic partner Yvonne (played by Lola Kirke), who is very passive and somewhat afraid of Juan.

In one scene in the movie, we see why Yvonne might be afraid of Juan. When Juan orders Pauline to do something, and she responds, “Don’t tell me what to do,” he hits her in the face. Jenny also has an independent streak, so she naturally clashes with Juan too, but since Juan and the rest of the group are dependent on Jenny to do their grocery shopping and other outside activities, Juan doesn’t get physically abusive with Jenny. Pauline and Jenny’s mutual dislike of Juan bonds the two women in a budding friendship, which foreshadows what happens later in the movie.

“American Woman” is not as suspenseful as it could have been, simply because the movie reveals in the very beginning that Jenny has been arrested. The film often moves at a slow pace in order to depict the isolation and secrecy experienced by the people who are hiding out from the law. There’s a tension-filed scene in the film where the owner of the farmhouse—a middle-aged man named Bob (played Matt Gordon)— unexpectedly shows up, and Jenny has to quickly make up a lie for why she is there. Later in the story, Juan threatens Jenny at gunpoint to force her to commit a serious crime, and it sets off a chain of events in the third act of the film.

“American Woman” is based on Susan Choi’s novel of the same name. The Jenny character was inspired by the real-life Wendy Yoshimura; Jenny’s boyfriend Michael Fisher is inspired by the real-life Willie Brandt (leader of the Revolutionary Army); and Juan and Yvonne are inspired by the real-life couple Bill and Emily Harris, the members of the Symbionese Liberation Army who hid out with Patty Hearst in rural New Jersey, with the help of Yoshimura.

Because “American Woman” is told from Jenny’s perspective, the other characters (except for Pauline, whom Jenny befriends) are written as somewhat one-dimensional. Even though the actors handle their roles capably, there’s a disconnect in how “American Woman” writer/director Semi Challas depicts the outlaws on screen: These characters are supposed to be firebrand radicals, but they’re written as somewhat dull and soulless. Viewers watching this movie will have a hard time believing that these outlaws are so passionate about their cause that they want to write a book about it, because the movie portrays them as lethargic and un-creative.

As the protagonist, Jenny is an introverted character, so the movie might make some people impatient to see more action taking place. This is not the kind of movie that will satisfy people who want everything to be wrapped up neatly in a tidy bow, like a crime procedural TV episode. Because the main characters in the movie are deeply unhappy people, and because we know that it’s only a matter of time before the law catches up to them, there are no real winners here.

UPDATE: Elevation Pictures will release “American Woman” on digital and VOD on June 30, 2020.